Expectations are both high and low for the Rogue Valley Stroke Play Championships this weekend at Centennial Golf Club.

Expectations are both high and low for the Rogue Valley Stroke Play Championships this weekend at Centennial Golf Club.

They are high for Brad Bills and three other champions returning to defend their titles. Bills is seeking his fifth crown in the men's division.

"One for the thumb," he says with a laugh.

And expectations are low when it comes to the size of the field and pace of play for the event long considered the Medford city championships.

There will be a total of 160 players entered in four divisions, or 40 fewer than last year, in an attempt to eradicate slow play that plagued the tournament when it moved to the then-months-old track in the southeast part of town.

The course played long and slow for the men's championship flight and difficult for players at other levels who couldn't keep their balls out of tall, thick grass that hugged fairways. There were 61/2-hour rounds, and some stretched to the next day because of darkness.

"We've had numerous meetings on what happened and what we need to do to differently," says Vince Domenzain, general manager and director of golf at Centennial.

In addition to the men's division, there are men's senior and super senior categories and a women's division.

Tee times will be from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with the men's championship flight going off last both days — another of the slow-play remedies. That group, which plays from longer tees than the others, started first on Day 1 last year, and play quickly backed up.

"The golf course just gets harder as you go further back," says Domenzain. "Other than Brad Bills, no one else really tore it up."

Other factors should also help the speed of play.

Tall grass so prevalent last year has been cut down this year. In 2006, grass between the seventh and eighth fairways was at least a couple feet high, says Domenzain. Now it's "down to bare ground," he says.

Mowing and irrigation patterns have been altered elsewhere, such as the outskirts of fairways, which have been cut back another 30 yards or so.

"Last year, balls that rolled just off the fairway were in some really tough conditions," says Domenzain.

With the smaller field, tee times can be separated by 10 minutes, a couple more than last year, to prevent clogging from the get-go, and the club will monitor play closely and have spotters on the course.

The club's pavilion, which was completed over the winter, provides other benefits. Players will be served lunch this year, and the patio and sloped terrain overlooking the 18th hole presents a nice viewing area as players finish.

Bills, naturally, hopes he's in the final group and successfully defending his title.

He hasn't played as well as he would have liked in a couple of high-profile tournaments this summer, finishing well back in the Oregon Mid-Am and the Rogue Valley Country Club championships.

"Sure, that would be fun," he says of repeating, something he did once before in the mid-1990s. "But I'm just hoping I can hit some better shots because I've been kind of frustrated. And obviously, you have to putt well. When you get under pressure and start making putts, you get a little confidence and who knows?"

Bills took a lesson from Ed Fisher recently and, though he says his swing is "under construction," he's happy with the results.

"I'm definitely hitting better shots," says Bills, who battled swing-plane flaws. "But anytime you're playing under pressure, you want to keep things as simple as possible and as non-technical as possible. That's what I'm trying to get before Saturday, where change is automatic and you're not thinking too much so you can focus on your target and your shot. That's the goal anyway, keep it as simple as possible."

One thing that won't be simple is retaining the title.

Among other top players in the field are Brooks Newsom, Sunny O'Grady, Glen Clark, Kevin Klabunde, Ross Jesswein, Jay Klemp, David Boals, Greg Miller, Kelly Rasmussen and Marshall Holman. Also, a couple players who helped Phoenix to the Class 4A state championship last spring, J.T. Compher and Jesse Taylor, are entered.

Newsom was runner-up last year and O'Grady placed third. Newsom also has a major state championship to his credit this summer, having captured the Oregon Men's Stroke Play title two weeks ago.

Other champions waging title defenses are Don Sever in the senior division, Bill Seymour in the super seniors and women's winner Linda Johnson.

Johnson has won six city titles. Sever and Seymour made successful debuts in the tournament last year.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com